Halong Bay is Vietnam’s most popular tourist attraction and one that simply has to be on any visitor’s Vietnam itinerary. This breathtaking natural wonder is renowned for its emerald waters, its thousands of sheer limestone karsts and for its tiny islets topped by rainforests. The region known as Halong Bay spans over 1,500 square kilometres and is actually composed of three separate bays. These are Halong Bay itself in the central region, Bai Tu Long Bay to the north-east, and Lan Ha Bay to the south. The whole area is so indescribably beautiful that in 1994 it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.
But unfortunately, in recent years Halong bay has become a victim of its own beauty. Breathtaking places such as Halong Bay are rarely left unnoticed and this has led it to become somewhat overdeveloped and swarming with tourists.
The waters of Halong Bay are now heavily polluted and the area’s ecosystem is suffering greatly. In 2017, Halong Bay welcomed nearly seven million visitors, an almost thirteen percent increase over 2016. That’s a lot of people! Because the best way to see Halong Bay is by boat, on any one day there are thousands of tourists cruising the bay. Thankfully, there are some less visited parts of Halong Bay that can still be enjoyed. Bai Tu Long Bay is one such area.
Where is Bai Tu Long Bay?
Halong Bay is in Northern Vietnam, in the Quang Ninh Province, close to the Chinese border. Bai Tu Long Bay is found in the north-eastern half of Halong Bay, 170 kilometres from the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi.
The best way to get to Bai Tu Long Bay is by booking a tour that includes transport from Hanoi. Alternatively, you can get to Halong City (the gateway to the bay) by car, minibus or local bus. It’s approximately four hours drive from Hanoi. You can also arrange a seaplane transfer there, but that is much more expensive.
Halong Bay vs. Bai Tu Long Bay
I’m sure you’ve all heard of Halong Bay before, but have you heard of Bai Tu Long Bay? Probably not, and that’s why Bai Tu Long Bay is a much better alternative. Tourists and tour operators haven’t had a chance to ruin it yet.
Bai Tu Long Bay is so much quieter than Halong Bay because only a few companies have a license to cruise it. This means that you can enjoy its natural wonders without the crowds.
You might wonder, besides the lack of tourists, what are the other differences? Well, Bai Tu Long Bay’s scenery is practically identical to Halong Bay’s, although it has a slightly smaller density of islands. But with all the tour boats on Halong Bay, you’ll never feel like you have it all to yourself, or really get a chance to enjoy it. Contrast that with Bai Tu Long Bay, where the beaches are still pristine, and whose residents are predominantly local fishermen. The waters there are also a lot cleaner and mostly free of rubbish.
How to choose your cruise?
Choosing your Halong Bay cruise can be a very daunting task as there are hundreds of operators and many Halong Bay cruises to choose from. But if you choose to visit Bai Tu Long Bay instead, you’ll have an easier decision, because only four companies are licensed to cruise there.
However, there are still a few boats to choose from and prices vary greatly. You will find very cheap deals everywhere in Hanoi, but remember that more often than not, you get what you pay for.
Be sure to choose a legitimate operator with a great reputation, excellent reviews on Trip Advisor and an impeccable safety record. This is very important. While doing our research, we read quite a few horrific stories of boats with rats onboard, boats that caught fire, sunk or crashed into each other. Doing your homework here will pay off; not doing it might totally ruin your holiday!
A two or three-day cruise?
This was a hard decision to make at first. With seven nights in the Hanoi region, we opted for a three day, two nights cruise. Most companies offer both options.
Be aware that choosing a two-day cruise will give you less than twenty-four hours out on the water. Boats depart at lunchtime on the first day and return just before lunchtime on the second. With a four-hour van transfer at either end of the trip, you won’t be left with much time to enjoy the bay.
The three-day cruises travel further up into the bay, putting some distance between them and the other cruise boats. If you have the time, I highly recommend the longer cruise. Had we chosen the two-day, one night cruise, we would have missed some of the highlights of our trip, such as the visit to a local fishing village and a BBQ lunch on a deserted beach.
They do have some one day cruises from Hanoi, but to be honest if you choose a one day cruise you’re going to regret it. As I said, it takes four hours to get to Halong Bay from Hanoi. So that will only leave you with a few hours on board the cruise and you just won’t be going far in the bay. Before you know it, you’ll have to head back for another four hours bus ride. Not worth it in my opinion.
Why did we choose the Dragon Legend Boat?
Dragon Legend is owned by Indochina Junk and it is regarded as one of the best luxury cruise options on Halong Bay. They have tons of great reviews on TripAdvisor, it’s great value and it’s the best cruise for couples.
Dragon Legend offers more of an “off-the-beaten-track” experience because their cruise takes you to some of the less visited parts of Bai Tu Long Bay. This made it a much more relaxing trip. Finally, all of their staff members that we dealt with, both during the booking process and onboard, were extremely helpful and friendly.
The Dragon Legend boats are luxurious while maintaining a Vietnamese style. The boats feature four decks, inside and outside restaurants, a spa, a fitness centre, a bar, a small swimming pool and a large sundeck area. With only twenty-four rooms, our boat certainly didn’t feel too crowded.
Each of the twenty-four spacious, wood-panelled cabins are comfortable and beautifully furnished. They are decorated with authentic, handmade art from various regions throughout Vietnam. The bathrooms even include a bathtub, perfect for a night time soak with an amazing view, after a long day spent exploring the bay. The beds were extremely comfortable and we both slept like babies!
Every meal served on the boat is freshly made and is authentic Vietnamese cuisine. You even get two Pho options for breakfast! Crew note each passenger’s dietary requirements before boarding the boat, so everyone is catered for. We both have dietary requirements and we certainly didn’t go hungry!
What were the activities onboard the Dragon Legend?
If you like to wake up early then you can start a brand new day with a Tai Chi lesson on the top deck. The morning views of the bay are spectacular as the sun rises. If Tai Chi is not your thing you can always grab a cup of tea or coffee and head there anyway. Sit on one of the long chairs and enjoy the sunrise while checking out the Tai Chi lesson.
We had the opportunity to go kayaking on the first two days of the cruise. One of our tour guides lead the way, while we paddled behind, enjoying the beautiful limestone islands around us. Kayaking was a great way to get up close to them and to see them from a different angle. I am not a big fan of kayaking (I have a constant fear of capsizing), but I really enjoyed kayaking around Bai Tu Long Bay.
The Vung Vieng fishing village & local Pearl farm
On our second day, we visited the floating fishing village of Vung Vieng, one of the biggest and most beautiful fishing villages along Halong Bay. This village is home to around four hundred people, who rely solely on the waters of Halong Bay to make their living.
In this village, homes, a school and a community hall are all built over the water. Seeing these buildings floating within a natural limestone island harbour was an incredible highlight for us. We also visited a local pearl farm where we learnt how pearls are grown and harvested.
Thien Canh Son cave and BBQ on the beach
After visiting the floating village, we were taken to a small island named Paradise Island. We went for a short walk up to visit the Thien Canh Son limestone cave. After exploring this thousand-year-old cave, we walked back down to the beach where a BBQ was ready for us to enjoy. A lunch with our feet in the sand was a great addition to this already amazing trip.
That’s right, every night after dinner you have the option of joining some of the crew for squid fishing.
When to visit Bai Tu Long Bay?
Spring ( March, April) and fall ( September, October) seem to be the best times to visit Halong Bay and Bai Tu Long Bay. The dry climate and pleasant temperatures will let you enjoy all of the activities on board.
But Halong Bay is fine to visit all year round, as long as you bear in mind that from May to September there are more storms and hurricanes. Such storms may lead to your trip being delayed or even cancelled. On the plus side, prices are up to 40% cheaper during that period! So if you are travelling on a budget, it still might be worth visiting then.
How much is a three day, two-night cruise on the Dragon Legend?
A three day, two-night cruise on the Dragon Legend costs $420 USD per person for a double cabin. However, they also have an early bird and last minute rates of $350 USD per person for all bookings confirmed < 10 days or > 45 days prior to departure date. This includes all food and water (but not soft drinks or alcohol), all tour activities, a luxury return van transfer from Hanoi, and a water puppet show at the Yen Duc Village during the return trip to Hanoi.
Where to stay in Hanoi before or after your Dragon Legend cruise?
Where we stayed: Hanoi Gold Holiday Hotel. This hotel was perfectly located in the centre of the Old Quarter, the best place to be in Hanoi in our opinion. The rooms were nice, large and clean. The manager and staff were all friendly and extremely helpful.
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Have you visited Halong Bay or Bai Tu Long Bay? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.
Free Two Roam endorses a policy of full disclosure. This cruise was not sponsored or paid for by Indochina Junk. These are our own views and opinions of this company.